Tuesday, January 7, 2014

tangled skiing

I grew up cross country skiing.  Many winter weekends were spent on the trails of a state park near our house.  Christmas gifts usually included items for skiing.  I remember one year in which my brother and I were gifted knickers.  Yup, knickers.  With matching wool socks.  And what is even weirder is that I remember being very excited about this gift, and how I was so pleased about my matching apparel and skiing accessories, right down to the pompom on my hat being the same color as a stripe in my wool knee socks.

I also remember the breakfasts my mother would cook for us in efforts to keep us energetic and as un-grumpy as possible.  Her speciality, which I believe was also the meal she cooked for us the morning before we hiked Mount Washington, was french toast made from peanut butter sandwiches.

Protein, my mother said, as she handed us our plates of breakfast.  It will give you enough energy to ski today.

Protein, I say to Julia, as I place a wedge of cheese directly into her mouth when she begins to give me the look of frustration I know too well after her fourth fall while trying to skate ski like her older brother.  I follow it up with a handful of nuts, with leftover pieces of Halloween candy hidden deep in my parka pocket for those emergency moments I know are coming toward the end of our route.  When someone has skied off the path and ended up with skis under a log, and bodies above.  Still connected by legs, bruised and tired.

This happens a lot.  I hear myself say something to the kids and like an echo, I hear someone else saying it to me in the past.  What is happening now, what I am doing now, gets tangled in with my own childhood, actions, feelings, and discussions, each weaving in an out of each other.

Cross country skiing is a lot of work.  As a child I focused on just how much work it was to swish your way through the woods.  Often, back then, on ungroomed trails, following my father's ski tracks or his snow shoe trampled path.  And how much work it was to climb a seemingly small hill, keeping poles and skis untangled while you V step yourself up said hill, without sliding backwards.

Keep your poles behind your feet,  I hear my mother calling encouragingly to me from behind as I say it to Elliott as he struggles up a hill ahead of me.  I remember noting a hint of impatience in my mother's voice then, the same note I am sure Elliott hears in my voice now.

As an adult, I focus on different aspects of the work of cross country skiing.  Of the equipment.  Of getting places with all of said equipment: ten skis, ten poles, ten boots.  Specifically ten boots that fit.

Seriously.  It is a lot of work just getting there.  And then, a lot of work getting boots tied, then untied to place the forgotten toe warmers in the boots, then ski pants on and parkas on, then parkas and pants off...so one can go to the bathroom one last time, and then back on.  Then hats and mittens.  And mittens tucked into jacket sleeves.  And on and on.  And each child has little things that I have learned need to be done or they are going to end up miserable.  One requires no snow against his wrists, another requires thoughtfully planned layering to be warm enough but not too hot, another requires lots of layering but always an easy and quick exit strategy for frequent bathroom breaks...

My gift to Jonathan when we got married was a pair of cross country skis.  I really wanted him to learn, and for us to be able to do this together.  And when our kids were born and Julia and Nicholas were old enough to learn, with Elliott pulled behind us in a pulk or sled on skis, we began to teach them.

We have skied a good deal at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.  As I look at their glossy map of beautifully maintained trails, I can detail memories of the places in which Julia first swished away from me down the groomed tracks.  The curve at the bottom of a steep hill where Jonathan always falls and gets stuck for a bit.  The bench in the woods where we frequently stop for a snack.  The icy hill where Nicholas and I managed to wrap ourselves around each other and then around a tree.

This is not the kind of skiing that I did as a child.  Having learned to classic ski, the straight ahead parallel skis style, this is what we started with when teaching the kids.  Skiing at a place that is groomed, with tracks for classic skiing, and for those less experienced to be guided in their swishing alongside older siblings who are trying out skate skiing with varying degrees of success, makes for a very happy family of five, all our abilities working on the trails.  Even Jonathan's.

The things we need to carry as we head out from the Outdoor Center have decreased, and I no longer pull the pulk along behind us as we head off into the woods.  We are now down to a backpack with a large thermos of hot chocolate in it and without fail, the all important snacks.  And hand and toe warmers for those of us with chronically cold extremities.

But now, Nicholas and Julia are interested in skate skiing, having watched the cool athletes whiz past us in hip ski wear at a pace that makes me tired just watching them.  These skiers hup hup hup up hills instead of using my well practiced V stepping.  So my two wish for fashionable ski wear, the knickers of their generation (though I admit that knickers were likely never fashionable for anyone except my family).  Puffy snow pants that were great for wetness protection and a bit of cushioning when they were younger are no longer cool.

I can hardly keep up with Nicholas at this point.

But in the woods, alone on a trail just the two of us, while Julia and Elliott warmed some frozen and painful toes, we worked out a rhythm.  As we moved through the trees, we chatted about many topics: iPods, and texting and Instagram accounts and other things that challenge me about his pre-teenaged world, listening to his thoughts about them.  And while I mused about how I wished he would stay small a bit longer, I also was touched by his willingness to wait for me at each bend, or his allowing me to go ahead of him, so I could set the pace, his chatter echoing from behind me.

Little toes now toasty, we joined the rest of our family and headed off together again.

As I puffed up an enormous hill toward the end of our time that day, I looked ahead to Julia and Nicholas, small beneath an enormous sky.  Ahead of me and about to disappear from view down the next hill.  They headed on without waiting for me to get to the top first.  Their togetherness providing enough security for them to feel like they could go on and out of view.  So small, and yet so big.

We are still challenged.  Still learning.  The V step is still a work in process for some.

I love to ski at Pineland.  But the voices of my childhood are quieter.  Because this is not the kind of place I skied as a child.

* * *

This winter, we are being gifted a full season, thus far, of ski weather.  Plenty of cold.  Plenty of ice, and also plenty of snow.  And with legs a bit longer and stamina a bit greater, we were ready, it felt to me, to try heading off the trail a bit.

A recent snowfall covered our frozen river in a foot of fluffy dry snow.  Jonathan and I scratched our heads for a bit as we gazed out at what had been hours of work clearing the ice for skating.  And went to the barn, and pulled out our skis.

I went ahead, blazing a trail for the shorter legs to follow, thinking of my father's role, of trail blazer, his fanny pack full of wax.

At first the kids followed along behind me, but soon, they were off, scrambling on their skis up off the river and following the walking trail and its bridges that run alongside the river.

And pretty soon, the forward moving rhythm that I get into when paths are blazed and groomed and other people are racing by seemed so unimportant.

One of the things I love about this kind of skiing is that the tippy trippy bushwhacking falling over silliness of it allows Elliott to be just as much of a participant, even a frequent leader, as the rest of us.  He found a patch of icicles in the bank, exposed by water that had run off into the river.  He skied toward it, and knelt before it, all of us following him over.

First he played them like a pipe organ. Tinking their musical scale.

And then he decided they were a garden of icicles.

And he harvested a few.

Our pace slowed, and we went just a few turns farther up the river, quietly and without much talking, looking up and around.

Pausing every once in a while to look at the snow.

And then we headed back.  The light fading.  And the cold coming on.  A look behind at the trail of curvy distracted looping creative paths we left behind us.  A tangled messy lumpy path. And therefore a very good one.

These unbeaten, quiet, unpaced paths are clearly my preference.

But at the same time, I remember Julia, years ago now.  I see her little self, in that Hanna Andersson one piece snowsuit, all zipped up with only her eyes showing, in a crouch so that she had less far to fall should the inevitable happen, as she disappears down the hill, skis in the groomed tracks, rounding a bend and almost out of sight.  And I can hear her singing whee!  all the way down.

There is something to be said for them following their own path as well, sometimes on trails and in tracks that are laid and made a bit easier for them.  And sometimes following their own self made trails, in a place of beauty, where they can try something new and feel the freedom of sliding a bit out of control, and out of my view.

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